Monday, November 14, 2011

"Sandwich Notch Road, Two Days Before Christmas" by John W. Evans


I like this poem in theory , as it satisfies my current interest in poems that have a sparer, even skeletal structure, but Evans could have done something global here. What it does with the localization of grief--the stunned incredulity, the trudging past familiar and unfamiliar things--works well enough, but it seems to stop short. In fact, it stops right at the point when there's an opportunity for the narrator to make caste some lines of the world at large, in this time of grief, seeming spectacularly irrelevant:

Wanting to live
after your death
is like waking
in an empty room:
too much space.

I like this analogy because it hints at the seeming futility of our desires and goals when the worst thing finally happens, that the petty, homemade philosophies that gave us comfort and a sense of continuity through a chaotic world are flimsy premises once the unavoidable fact of death encroaches on one's most intimate sphere of association. This could have been a spare, concise King Lear moment, where a few lean stanzas describing the tone and mood of the universe after the bad news is learned and being processed could have brought a deeper, icier sense of psychic remove. It's not that Evans needed to add an onslaught of language to expand his view, but one does get the feeling that he was just getting warmed up before pushing his wits to another set of consideration; the entire poem reads like a set up that ends unconvincingly. Evans follows up his rich metaphor of comparing of living beyond your time to waking up in an empty room with a sign off that is quick and cliché,
All day I sleep off
the crude hangover.
There is, to be sure, the suggestion that the narrator sought a temporary death through an aggrieved drinking binge, that he wanted to blot out and remove an accumulating mass of emotion that will inevitably overwhelm him and that this fits in neatly with the previous image, but it is cheap disservice to an evocative phrase. There is a point where the vocabulary could have expanded, swelled just a bit, that the metaphors could have gone beyond the tics and aches of the narrator's hangovers and dulled senses and demonstrated the external world at large, pieced together by senses that are deranged with sorrow.

I suspect Evans submitted these poems for publication too soon. While I like the style of the poem, it seems tentative; where he presents an interesting springboard to some inspired metaphors, he stops and this, I think, is the poem's failure. In the two poems you present, he is a bit more talky, and he edges closer to monologue, to prose, instead of poetry; they remind of the leaden open pages of Rick Moody's overwrought, hand wringing novel Purple America, a string of run on misery that irritated me rather than feel sympathy for the man who must know care for his aging mother. Evans, I suspect, is still too close to his material. I am a fan of ambiguity in poems and I rail against the idea that a poetic narratives , by necessity, be a righteously crafted thing that is a finished product, self contained, which ties up the loose ends of a poem tidily the way a situation comedies end with a episode concluding laugh line. I think Evans is obliged to be honest to his emotional progression and leave this story unfinished; otherwise it merely becomes another Lifetime movie of the week. What I didn't like was the convenient, easy, lazy bit about recovering from a hangover; it does not sound earned. Hence, I wanted more from this poem; it was building credibly, and then he stopped at the point when I think he should have pushed further. The poem is premature, I think; he should have set it aside and come back after some days had passed.

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